The press in South Korea is the opposite of that of North Korea: diverse, privately owned and critical of the government. President Kim Dae Jung, basking in the light of his Nobel Peace Prize, declared in January 2001 that he would propose a "media reform". But this project looks more like something designed to destroy large press groups than to liberalise press laws. Unnamed officials stated that this reform was designed to "fight against monopolies". Conservative newspapers have been accused of publishing "biased information" and "unfair attacks" against the President. "Citizens’ associations", close to those in power, declare, with statistics as evidence, that the population is favourable to a media audit and the dismantling of traditional press groups. A foreign journalist living in Seoul confirmed the tensions between Kim Dae Jung, whose power is weakening, and the "big three" daily newspapers (Chosun Ilbo, Joong Ang Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo), very close to the interests of several oligarchic families. Kim Dae Jung has also been accused of weakening critical media in the perspective of general elections planned for December 2002.
Three journalists jailed
Lee Chang Gi, Park Joon Young and Baek Oon Jong, respectively chief editor and journalists for the magazine Jajuminibo, were arrested on 23 October 2001 in Seoul by the South Korean secret service (NIS). Less than one hour later, twenty government officials burst into the premises of this magazine published in Seoul. They confiscated computers, cameras and books. Reporters without Borders is unable to confirm whether or not the secret service agents had an arrest warrant for these journalists. Lee Chang Gi, Park Joon Young and Baek Oon Jong were accused of violating the national security law by "praising" North Korea in articles and interviews published by the magazine and available on the web site www.jajuminbo.com. Jajuminbo, a far-left magazine registered in May 2000 with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, frequently publishes articles about and interviews with pro-North Korean personalities, and openly supports the Pyongyang regime and dialogue between the two Koreas. According to an official of the monthly magazine, eleven journalists, most of whom are young people, work on a voluntary basis for Jajuminbo.
Pressure and obstruction
In February 2001, the National Tax Service (NTS) began a general audit of the country’s main media on request of the government. Planned for a two-month period, this tax probe concerned some 20 public and private media. More than 400 tax officials were mobilised to check the accounts of these media over the previous five years. But, gradually, the officials concentrated on the newspapers most critical of the government of President Kim Dae Jung. For example, 50 tax officials audited the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo. According to an editorial published on 19 March 2001 in this daily, the National Tax Service extended this probe to its regional offices and some of its editorial staff. On 23 March, the Union of Chosun Ilbo Journalists denounced the decision of the tax officials to check the accounts of the newspapers editorial staff, in what they considered to be a strong violation of their "right to privacy". At the same time, the main opposition party declared that the government was trying to "muzzle the press". The government said this was not its intention. On 1 March 2001, the weekly Sisa Journal published some documents allegedly prepared by a ruling party think tank regarding the strategy to follow for controlling the media. According to these documents, criticism from some conservative newspapers such as Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Donga Ilbo, "reached dangerous levels". The authors of the documents listed the newspapers according to their attitude towards the government. They recommended attacking head-on these critical media, also accused of being linked to the interests of some families and companies. At the same time, the government asked the Fair Trade Commission to investigate the situation of fifteen media some state-owned, to determine whether there were irregularities in advertising sales and monopolistic positions. On 21 June, the NTS announced that it would levy fines of some 400 million euros on twenty-three Korean media, for "embezzlement" and "tax evasion". According to the organisation in charge of the audit, these media were found guilty of not declaring more than one billion euros of income with the tax service. The NTS later declared that charges would be filed against six press companies. The results of the audit caused an outcry among newspapers that feared that their publishers would be arrested. Journalists declared, on 28 June, that they were "fighting against the take-over of the media". The NTS filed personal charges against Kim Byung Kwan, honorary managing editor of the Dong-A Ilbo press group, Bang Sang Hoon, managing editor and majority shareholder of the daily Chosun Ilbo, Bang Kye Sung, managing editor of Chosun Ilbo, Kim Byung Keon, vice-president of Dong-A Ilbo, and Cho Hee Joon, former managing editor of Kookmin Ilbo. On 15 July, the wife of Kim Byung Kwan of Dong-A Ilbo was found dead in front of her sister’s building. The police believed that this was a suicide, but saw no connection with the charges filed against her husband. In early August, the managing editors of the above-mentioned newspapers were questioned several times by magistrates overseeing this case. On 17 August, the police arrested Bang Sang Hoon, Kim Byung Kwan and Cho Hee Joon under orders from the Seoul court. These three press bosses were imprisoned. Three days later, a majority of the country’s members of parliament decided to create a committee to investigate the conditions under which the media audit was carried out. Meanwhile, the courts continued their work. On 4 September, Bang Sang Hoon, Kim Byung Kwan and Cho Hee Joon, were charged, along with ten other media leaders who were not arrested. Shortly after, lawyers for the three imprisoned executives asked for their release on bail. On 25 October, Kim Byung Kwan, of the Dong-A Ilbo press group, was released on bail by the Seoul district court for medical reasons. His heart condition worsened after his arrest. He was released on the condition that he stays close to his home and a Seoul medical centre. He is still charged with tax evasion. On 6 November, the same court released Bang Sang Hoon, of the daily Chosun Ilbo. Magistrates considered that there was no risk of him leaving the country and that his trial could be carried out without the need for him to remain in custody. But shortly after, he was sentenced to seven years in jail, during a preliminary hearing, for the same charges as his colleague. On 8 November, the court finally released Cho Hee Joon, of the daily Kookmin Ilbo. Charges against him call for six years in prison and a fine of more than 3,500,000 euros. The former managing editor recognised that there were some "problems" with the newspaper’s accounting.